Great Grey Shrike – Holm Hill, New Forest

Once I’d parked up at Wilverley I walked east towards Duck Hole and by 12:15pm I was in position overlooking the stand of silver birches just east of the bridge at Duck Hole. The shrike had been seen here this morning a full half a mile from the more regular sightings which are north east of Holm Hill towards Rhinefield. I decided to gain a bit more height and walked up the hill just to the south. From here I had great views all the way to Rhinefield where I had seen the shrike a year ago.

I scanned from this position continuously for 30 minutes or more without luck. Although Great Grey Shrikes often perch in very conspicuous positions usually on the highest part of the tree they can go missing for long periods. This is partly because they range so widely but also because their sit and wait hunting tactics mean that they drop down vertically to seize prey on the ground before flying away low to the ground. This means that they can then be very tricky to relocate.

I decided to walk further east towards Crab Tree Bog and Holm Hill in case the shrike had flown back to its favoured position in the silver birches fairly lose to the Rhinefield House Hotel. On the way I heard and then saw several Dartford Warbler and there were also two or three Fieldfare in amongst a larger flock of 50 Redwing.

I reached the point in the path where I had seen the shrike almost exactly a year before and continued to scan the trees. Scanning with binoculars allows you to cover a greater search area more quickly and as you’re including more of a search area you are more likely to notice the bird in an unexpected position for example flying between trees. I’d just finished one of these long scans when I noticed a bird of prey gliding very low over the heath. At first I assumed it was a buzzard but as it banked I could see that it was a ringtail Hen Harrier, a really unexpected find! I watched it drift along the wettest part of the bog roughly north west toward Duck Hole.

It was now after 2pm and so I decided to head back west towards the car in the hope that the shrike was where it had been seen this morning. Fifteen minutes later I was back where I had started looking earlier on and again I tried to keep a bit of height to improve my vantage point and began scanning again. For another thirty minutes I scanned almost continuously with binoculars without luck, I was about to give up when through the binoculars I noticed a white blob at the top of a large pine tree. I switched to scope and was delighted to see the unmistakeable shape of the Great Grey Shrike. They normally prefer to perch on deciduous trees like silver birch as this gives them greater visibility on their potential prey during the winter.

Last year the shrike had flown out of my scope view while I was sketching it and I didn’t see which way it went and I didn’t see it again. I was determined that this wouldn’t happen again. However, after a minute or so it dropped almost vertically to the ground and was lost to view and I couldn’t relocate it! It was a long ten minutes before I picked it up again a hundred yards to the west in the silver birches and I enjoyed some extended views.

Great Grey Shrike breed in Scandinavia and are fiercely territorial and so when they arrive in Britain they spread far and wide often back to wintering territories they’ve used before. Typically they maintain a territory five times the size of Red backed Shrike, for example, and so finding Great Grey Shrikes can take some effort. 

They sit like sentinels on favoured hunting posts surveying their territory for prey which includes invertebrates and small mammals which are dropped on vertically from their perch. There are probably around 150 Great Grey Shrikes in the UK each winter.

Great Grey Shrike, Hen Harrier, Dartford Warbler and Brambling made this a very successful day. 

Water Pipit – Titchfield Canal Path, Hampshire – 25th January 2020

I worked out an itinerary for a day out with Dad adding year ticks. I had debated whether we go to the watercress beds near Alresford for an almost guaranteed Water Pipit but in the end as we were heading to Hill Head anyway I gambled that we might see Water Pipit at the north end of the canal path.

We headed to the Bridge Street car park near Titchfield and then walked down the canal path for Dad to see the roosting Barn Owls. There were two in the normal split tree. We then turned out attention to finding the Water Pipits. They are sometimes seen in the flooded meadows just south of Bridge Street and so we scanned carefully but there was no sign. Their favourite location is apparently further south almost half way down the canal path on the right hand side in the field with a metal barn and long pipes. We set off and eventually found the field but again there was no sign of any pipits despite a thorough search. 

We headed back north for a second attempt at a Water Pipit near Bridge Street just before we got back to the car. As we got to the flooded meadows again two pipits lifted up from the grass and flew away south and out of sight. Thankfully one of them wheeled back around and landed in the tree on the edge of the field. I quickly got it in the scope and was very pleased to see that it was a Water Pipit. The underparts were a clean white and the wing bars and supercilium were also prominent.

Velvet Scoter – Hill Head & Chilling, Hampshire – 25th January 2020

From the canal path we headed to the Meon Shore. Dad had a cup of tea while I started looking for the Velvet Scoter which had been reported off Hill Head. I then noticed on Going Birding that the scoter had just been seen with 12 Eider from the Chilling Substation. This is quite a distance back up the Solent from Hill Head and so I turned my view even more to the right (to the west) in the hope that I could pick up the distant Eider group.

I managed to find a group of around eight sea ducks including five male eider. The other three birds looked very dark but even at this extreme long range I felt sure that they were all of a similar size and no doubt female Eider. I also picked up several smaller groups of Eider but I couldn’t see anything that looked like a Velvet Scoter. A group of 25 Sanderling flew past, new for the year and no doubt heading to the high tide roost.

I checked my OS map and Google maps and made the decision to drive the five miles around to the Solent Breezes Holiday Park as this would put us much closer to Chilling and the Velvet Scoter. We ought to have parked and walked from the layby before we got to the holiday park but not knowing the area I carried on and drove through and parked near the water close to the slipway next to the crescent of holiday homes. I imagine that we were probably trespassing although it wasn’t a deliberate decision.

Fairly quickly I managed to find a large group of 30 Eider which appeared to be roughly half male and half female. The group were fairly close in shore and so wouldn’t have been visible from Hill Head. On a quick scan I couldn’t see the Velvet Scoter. I carried on searching and came across smaller groups of Eider but no scoter. I returned to the large flock and started to check more systematically.

I was excited to see that the very left hand bird was clearly much smaller and also darker than the female Eider. It disappeared regularly in the choppy water and it was also asleep most of the time but occasionally it raised its head and I could see the double white spots on the face, one being a pale loral spot and the other a pale cheek spot. This was the Velvet Scoter.

Little Owl – Fort Cumberland, Hampshire – 25th January 2020

We then headed to Fort Cumberland for the roosting Little Owls. As we walked into position I could see that the first two holes in the wall were empty but thankfully as we walked slightly further and the other two holes came into view I could see that the left hand hole contained a Little Owl. After five minutes or so it disappeared back into the hole and although we waited for another 15 minutes it didn’t reappear.

Short-eared Owl – Smoothmoor Nature Reserve, Hampshire – 25th January 2020

The final target of the day was Short-eared Owl at Southmoor Nature Reserve. This is an area of coastal grazing marsh sitting on the edge of Langstone Harbour. Short-eared Owls roost and hunt here and they had been seen for the previous three evenings at any time from 2pm to 5pm. It seemed that they roost either in the field or in the large hedge on the east side of the first field and that they would often perch up on the one of the fence posts preening before quartering the field for prey. We arrived at 2pm and spent the next three hours searching. Unfortunately there was no sign.

A disappointing end to the day but given that we could easily have missed all three year ticks we were pretty pleased overall. The Water Pipit was seen almost as we had got back to the car, the Velvet Scoter required a significant change of strategy and a bit of unintended trespassing and had the Little Owl disappeared into his hole two minutes earlier we would have missed him as well.

Ferruginous Duck – Kingfisher Lake, Blashford – 28th January 2020

A couple of weeks ago I had missed Ferruginous Duck at Ibsley Water, Blashford following one of its rare trips away from Kingfisher Lake. During that afternoon I had also accompanied someone who had step ladders to Kingfisher Lake but again there was no sign.

This morning I headed back to Kingfisher Lake with my own step ladders. The steps are needed as viewing from the whole of the 250 metre footpath along the western edge of the lake is blocked by 10 foot high green tarpaulin. Presumably to give the fisherman privacy while they fish this private lake.

I spent 2 hours up and down the ladders searching for the Ferruginous Duck. It spends most of its time around the main island and although I concentrated most of my attention there I did spend a good deal of time scanning the rest of the lake. I placed the ladders in 10 or so different positions to view different parts of the lake and the island but there was no sign. I was joined for 30 minutes by Bryan Coates who commented that it was hard enough to see this bird even before the green tarpauling fence was put up!

Whimbrel – Eling Great Marsh, Hampshire – 29th January 2020

I’d heard about a wintering Whimbrel in Totton on Eling Great Marsh and once I’d got better directions I headed over there. I parked near the Eling Tide Mill and walked out to the front and south towards Bury Woods.

In my mind I had envisaged a single Whimbrel feeding on the mud flats. However, when I got there were around 250 waders scattered all over the mud flats and on the shoreline. It would take some time to check them. I spent the next 30 minutes going through them and counted 220 Black-tailed Godwit, a few Redshank and Oystercatchers, three Curlew but no Whimbrel. The tide was rising and shortly before high tide the waders fly to Bury Marshes which is inaccessible. Some of the Black-tailed Godwit were already leaving.

I scanned to the furthest point and a wader raised its head and the profile was unmistakably of a Whimbrel. The head pattern was difficult to ascertain at long range but the relatively short bill only appearing to be curved towards the tip was obvious. On the way back to the car I walked half way over the bridge at the Tide Mill as I’ve seen Kingfishes her before and sure enough there was one fishing on the far bank.

I had some 121 Photography Tuition at Langstone in the afternoon and so I had some sandwiches at the nearby Southmoor Nature Reserve on the off chance that one the Short-eared Owls might put in an appearance but no luck.

I finished January on 136 which is my best ever start to a year ahead of 134 in 2019 and 131 in 1999.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – Acres Down, New Forest – 1st February 2020

My plan for today was to visit Acres Down and Martin Down. I was hoping for Lesser Redpoll, Crossbill and possibly Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at Acres Down and Grey Partridge, Red-legged Partridge, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting at Martin Down. I put my step ladders in the car just in case the Ferruginous Duck was seen again at Kingfisher Lake which is more or less halfway between Acres Down and Martin Down.

I decided to head to Acres Down for sunrise, rather than Martin Down, as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker would be easier in the morning assuming one was drumming.

Unfortunately there was no sign of any Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and I walked the full length of my normal route without hearing any Lesser Redpoll or Crossbill. I did see a pair of Hawfinches near the car park and had great views of a Treecreeper which was new for the year. It was also brilliant watching a pair of Goldcrests simultaneously displaying to each other, the male flashing his red crown and the female her yellow crown.

I had walked half way back to the car before changing my mind and doubling back to the clearing at the furthest point as this was surrounded by pines and silver birches and offered the best chance for Lesser Redpoll or Crossbill. Eventually I heard Lesser Redpolls but I couldn’t see them. A little later I heard them again and this time picked up a pair flying past at tree top height.

It was around now that the Hampshire WhatsApp group reported that the Ferruginous Duck had been seen again at Kingfisher Lake near Blashford. It hadn’t been reported for a week and although I had put the step ladders in the car I had decided not to detour on my way to Martin Down unless it was reported again. I didn’t hurry away immediately but as soon as I heard the distinctive calls of Crossbills and then saw them land in the tree tops I decided that I would head off in search of the Ferruginous Duck. Only ten minutes up the road and very surprising news came through that a Hoopoe had been found near Fawley, probably the same bird that was seen at Needs Ore and then Hounsdown earlier in the winter. I was fifteen minutes from Blashford and so decided to carry on for the Ferruginous Duck first and if the Hoopoe was reported again I would head to Fawley and if not then I would head to Martin Down as originally planned

Ferruginous Duck – Kingfisher Lake, Blashford – 1st February 2020

I first tried for the Ferruginous Duck on the 13th January this year. This is a bird that has wintered here since 2011 but the difficulty is that it spends most of its time on Kingfisher Lake which is private and the only view is from the footpath along the western edge but it is blocked by several hundred yards of ten foot high green tarpaulin, you need step ladders. I arrived at Kingfisher Lake and placed my ladders against the fence in the position I already knew would offer the best view of the lake and give a good view of the area around the main island which is an area that the duck has often favoured.

There were plenty of duck on the water but I couldn’t see the Ferruginous Duck on my first few scans. Having spent three hours searching unsuccessfully over the last ten days I was naturally hoping to see it quickly as I was worried that it would disappear into the undergrowth around the main island and not be seen again. I decided to message Drew Lyness who had reported it earlier to find out what part of the lake he had seen it on as that would help me work out where to place my step ladders.

He replied to say that it wasn’t around the island but directly opposite, on the east bank, where the lawns come down to meet the lake and he said that it had been hugging the far bank. I then concentrated my attention on that area and after another ten minutes or so I saw a dark duck loitering behind some overhanging tree branches on the far bank. It swam out a little and I could see the lovely purple chestnut tones and the very obvious white rear flank patch, success!

It dived occasionally but in the main swam very close to the reeds often disappearing into them. It would be easy to miss this bird and it does seem to avoid open water. I waited for another ten minutes in case it swam closer and then I heard a car alarm which sounded a bit like mine (although it wasn’t) and so I headed back to the car with step ladders under my arm.

The Hoopoe hadn’t been seen again and so I headed north towards Martin Down. Shortly before I got to Fordingbridge, however, it was reported. I pulled into a garage, grabbed a sandwich and then headed south east towards Fawley.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s